It seems absurd to be arguing for the inclusivity of African languages in African universities and other institutions of higher learning, yet here we are.
word by esihle lupindo
Language is one of the most important aspects of higher education. It is a crucial factor in the overall success of students in institutions of higher learning, especially in South Africa where there are 11 official and countless other languages spoken in millions of homes.
Through conversations that I have had with university tutors from various departments and universities and some academics, I believe that students understand their work better and grasp concepts easier when they see themselves mirrored in the medium of instruction and this makes the course seem less foreign and intimidating.
Through the works of, lecturer, Somikazi Deyi (2018) we are made aware that there are institutional anxieties around possible limitations of terminology and vocabulary in trying to introduce a multilingual approach to academic learning and teaching. Deyi also highlights that African languages are not mere terms, but languages that are nuanced and developed enough to be used in the academic space to teach, learn and conduct research.
However, a paper written by Beverley Burkett and Elize Koch titled, ‘Making the role of African languages in higher education a reality’, illustrates that if the choice were available, many parents would opt that their children be taught in their home languages, under the condition that they continue receiving quality education. They further alert us that monolingualism pushes the people who do not understand English to fringes, particularly in “democratic processes, national and international.”
The solution is not in eradicating English but in having institutions of higher learning creating academic environments that do not suppress other (South) African languages and that they see these languages as sites of (academic) knowledge, and make enough room to create and theorise the students who speak those languages.
Universities teach critical thinking and a part of this is the acceptance of the complicated realities. Language is deeply related to culture and identity which institutions should not try to erase for the sake uniformity.
There is also misalignment between institutions of higher learning and high schools because in high school pupils are encouraged to be, at least, bilingual through the expectation that they take a minimum of two languages. However, when students enter the higher education space, there is a sudden dissipation of this bilingual approach.
Those who can say my name in my language have the power to see my soul.Vuyelwa Maluleke
This dissipation limits the extent to which students are able to engage with their academic work. We must be cognisant of the barriers that exist as a result of economic disparities. These include things like some students not having access to libraries and some of them experiencing culture shock as a result of having previously been accustomed to being taught a majority of their high school subjects in their home language. We are aware that some institutions are beginning to move towards finding ways of bridging this linguistic gap that exists between the end of high school and the early stages of university. These include the University of KwaZulu-Natal which has introduced compulsory isiZulu modules for all students; and some departments such as the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University offering a compulsory isiXhosa module which students cannot complete their qualifications without taking and passing.
The Department of Political and International Studies at Rhodes University also offers students the option to submit their academic work such as tutorials, term essays and even write their exams in languages including isiXhosa, isiZulu and Sesotho.
Research conducted by The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) informs us that using a student’s home language in the classroom and not asking the student to leave their languages outside, marks a validation of their identities as language is closely related to identity. This research indicates that multilingualism expands to other sectors that rely on skills produced by higher education; it states that “at least 56 African languages are used in administration and at least 63 African languages are used in the judicial system… in business communication at least 66 African languages are used and at least 242 African languages are used in the mass media”. Although this research is not limited to the South African context, it gives us an idea that there is room for African languages in professional spaces.
This widening acceptance of languages by universities has a ripple effect even outside of the learning environment. Firstly, it communicates that the university is serious about issues of diversity and transformation beyond their policies. Secondly, allowing students to explore these avenues feeds into the broader need for linguistic and cultural preservation across the country, while making learning easier and more accessible.
This gives permission to students to think critically and formulate solutions that speak to their unique circumstances. Introducing these languages breaks conceptual limitations that could exist. We are also aware of people who have written academic research papers in their home languages. These graduates include Eileen Pooe who wrote her PhD in Setswana, Hleze Kunju who wrote his in isiXhosa, Phephani Gumbi wrote in isiZulu, Anastacia Mamabolo wrote it in Sepedi. So, there are academic reference points that students can go to to seek in depth understating in their home languages.